The Divinely Ordered Steps of Dr.Jaz
For the first meeting of my academic journey to Dr. Jaz Gray, my advisor and I sat outside on the black iron patio furniture of a coffee shop carved into a Carolina hillside. We were in the midst of tall trees. Hunter and castleton green, they were probably imitated in many a painting that could never quite capture the beauty of this land once belonging to the Native and Indigenous peoples of the Chapel Hill area. Speaking over the buzz of bugs to the right and the scurry of college students grabbing tables to the left, I took a sip my mocha latte to clear my throat. I, then, informed my advisor that I would definitely not be pursuing a career path as a tenured-track professor. Little did I know where my steps would lead me.
Entering into the Ph.D. program, I had acquired over fifteen years of professional experience across four different sectors of communication. I had accomplished this while enduring at least eight of my almost fifty procedures for a craniofacial disability. It had not only impacted how I’d shown up in this superficial, stigmatizing world we live in, for better and worse, but it has had a very real impact on my physical capacity at times (including eating, speaking, mobility, and fatigue). At each stage of my career, I happened to be championed, supported, challenged, and given opportunities to grow by those whose influence shaped the direction of my professional life. In the process, I had not only become a better servant leader but a better advocate for myself and a braver soul.
In 2017, I left my position at Paramount Pictures the month before I would have been promoted, while working under one of the few Black female executives at her level at a major film studio. Over my five years with the company, I had to take medical leaves at least three times for surgeries that took me out of work for a few months each. Yet, during my time there, I had worked my way up from being her executive assistant to being the representative for our team at the SXSW film festival. When she asked me why I was leaving and when, we had built the kind of relationship that propelled me to tell her the truth, even if I sounded like a religious fanatic. I had prayed that God align my desires with His. God confirmed that I needed to go back to school. My last day would be Sept. 22, which just happened to be the start of the next season of that year.
With her support, I submitted my two-week notice from an executive suite at the Toronto Film Festival, my first international trip as a working professional. Before leaving my job, I had co-founded the first ad hoc committee for health-related diversity at the company where we had completed our first initiative, raising awareness for the lack of professional opportunities for disabled people in the entertainment workforce. My nonprofit Jaz’s Jammies, which supports hospitalized and displaced children, had flourished as well. Our highly anticipated annual breakfast wasn’t complete until a senior level manager blew an electrical circuit in our building while making waffles for hungry employees helping to raise funds.
However, by 2018, I had decided that, while I appreciated my time working for institutions throughout my career, I was going in a different direction. It was now time to just do my own thing. I would gain a doctorate mainly to earn a credential I thought I needed to access the next level of opportunities I saw for myself – traveling the world as a public speaker with Memphis as my home base. Calmly and wisely, my advisor suggested I keep my options flexible. I nodded out of politeness for this burgeoning relationship, but it would take acts of God to shift my desires.
Two years later, after having the opportunity to actually teach college students, I had at least thawed to the idea of being a professor in general. On the first day of class, as students grabbed the breakfast bars and juice from my cute ‘lil wicker baskets, I turned down the hip-hop inspired jazz of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and I practiced my own brand of radical visibility, before I had learned about the QueerCrip movement. I told them about why I look different from any other instructor they have had. I explained that I would not be teaching the course as a traditional lecture because I could not physically talk for hours on end with this new jaw. It had been replaced the summer prior with a bone from my leg. I told them I believed story is a divine tool to learn about the world, each other, and ourselves. Then I invited them to co-create the story of our shared journey that semester, of what we hoped to gain by showing up for and with each other each class.
By the fall of 2020, I had decided to adjust my plans, somewhat. I would now work on a very complex, fabulous, amazing two-year dissertation project through the spring of 2022. Then I would get my Ph.D. and work at my undergraduate alma mater outside Nashville. Maybe find a chic, affordable new house near my best friend and her family. Watch my new godson grow up and go visit my folks on the weekends. It sounded like a lovely life to me. But you know that saying about what happens when we make plans, right? Well, if you follow manifestation then you just get what you want, or so I’ve heard. But for those of us who follow God, we get to have our wants refined until they begin to reflect His own, and we can willingly surrender in service of a plan that is bigger than us.
On October 2, 2020, the last of my remaining resolve to do what I wanted disappeared with four words, “See this job posting.” I received an email from my advisor asking me to check out a position for an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. She knew it was a year earlier than I planned to graduate, and it would, ultimately, mean a complete redesign of my dissertation plans. But, just, take a look. So, I started to read about who it is they were looking for:
One: “The successful candidate will teach courses in communication ethics [and] mixed research methods.”
Me: Oh, I teach that.
Two: They will “contribute to the student’s whole person, particularly their awareness of the interconnectedness between self, others, and calling [and their] understanding of communication systems to foster justice.”
Me: Oh, okaaay. I do that.
Three: Pepperdine is religiously affiliated with the Churches of Christ. Pepperdine celebrates and extends the spiritual and ethical ideals of the Christian faith.
Me: Oh, now that is my exact religious background and what I’m all about.
Also me: Okay, God.
Notably, there were also two requirements I did not have: A Ph.D. and a track record of published academic research, without which a potential applicant “barely qualifies” for a tenure-track position, especially at a prestige school. While I was a published author and journalist, I did not have any pieces in academic journals yet. While some classmates had diligently worked on journal articles the summer before, I was recuperating from surgeries 46 and 47. Furthermore, I was not, at that point, graduating in 2021.
So, let’s fast forward. I get the tenure-track position. Well, let’s back up just a bit. First, over seventy scholars apply for this job. I get my application in on November 30th at 11:58p ET when the deadline is midnight. Between December of 2020 and March of 2021, I have nearly twenty interviews with the search committee, faculty, staff, and higher administration as well as three presentations. Two of them are requested by the committee to discuss my teaching and research and the other my advisor is an idea by my advisor to reframe my fit for the position as beyond the traditional qualifications that others might have.
Theeen, I get the position.
I fly out to Los Angeles to find a new apartment with the support of my sister who lives in Dallas. Then I fly back to Memphis to pack things accumulated at my parents during quarantine. I fly to Chapel Hill to pack up my old apartment at school with the support of my church family. And then I fly back to Los Angeles. I do this all while completing a revamped dissertation. Through relationships that I’ve built while advocating for marginalized communities, I recruit eight disabled people of color, from different genders, ages, races and regions of the country to participate in observations and two rounds of interviews each. For my study, I assess the feasibility of a storytelling tool I’ve been developing which repurposes the narrative structure and character arc underlying fictional stories like movies for use by real people, empowering them with self-affirmation and story sharing skills to learn about themselves and share their stories with others. After I defend the research, officially becoming a Ph.D., my committee congratulates me by affirming the people my work
will help and the publications it will yield.
Now, as I reflect on that young woman sipping her mocha latte three years ago, very clear about what she had planned for her life, I think about what has happened since then. Specifically, I wonder if people will see what I see, get what I get from my journey. Or will they do what is often the case with these kinds of stories. Congratulate me for all my hard-work, for believing in myself, or maybe give the “universe” a little credit. Hard work certainly positioned me. But there are things even “hard work” can’t do, like prepare an opportunity exactly aligned with who you are as a person and what your life is about during the exact time frame in which you can use the opportunity to continue helping others. Plus, the seventy other people who applied for this position worked hard and some had qualifications that I did not. But they did not have my story of these divinely ordered steps.
As my advisor and I descended the cobble stoned pathway of the café, we began to prepare for the next three years which quickly became these past three years. I looked up. Through the trees, I saw past the forest that surrounded me. I saw the sky, a perfect blend of peach, cotton candy blue and tangerine, with just a hint of lavender. The sun a warm hug against my skin. The universe is where I reside. It, and everything in it including me – we all belong to a Creator who has a plan to bring others to Himself through us. As someone who has been led by God, I have learned that my desires coming to fruition are not the result of simply attracting what I think about. It is a culmination of hard-work, wise counsel and divine alignment all in prayerful submission to God’s desires – not only for me but for you. If I had relied on my manifestation, I would not be typing this blog with the California breeze brushing against my arms, having just become Dr. Jaz. You would not be reading this. Thankfully, God's will is better than my wants.
renew my strength, where I soar wi